Fights, festivals, fear: Sohrab Hura's angst-ridden India

With his photographs of out-of-control hedonism, punch-ups and blood-letting rituals, Hura captures a nation in the grip of an angry new nationalism

Sohrab Hura’s photobook, The Coast, begins with a fantastical short story written by him. It features Madhu, a woman whose head has been stolen by her obsessive lover. She is awaiting the arrival of “an idiot of a photographer” who wants to capture her and “all the wonderful and vicious things that happened along the Indian coastline”.

The images that follow are indeed wonderful and vicious, almost hallucinatory in their intensity: lovers embrace, angry men come to blows, revellers are caught in closeup, eyes bloodshot, faces daubed with powdered paint, lips smeared with lipstick. Moments of violence are caught in the flashbulb’s glare: a machete drips blood on a bare foot, a man holds a brick above another man he has pinned to the pavement, a woman stares in terror at something – or someone – just out of the frame.

Throughout, Hura merges the real and the fictional, the found and the constructed, his harsh, unforgiving flash illuminating what he calls “the loneliness and suspicion of the Indian night”. In its raw immediacy, the book reflects what he describes as “the non-aesthetic of so many of the images uploaded on social media, which has now become an aesthetic in itself”. The result is one of the most powerfully unsettling photobooks of the year.

“Many of the images in the book are real,” he continues, “but I have messed around with them afterwards. I have also witnessed and tried to defuse real fights. So, some of it is theatre, some of it real-life drama. I’m playing with ideas of voyeurism and trust, manipulating the viewer. Nothing is definite, everything is raw and overwhelming. This is the image world we now live in.”

Harsh flash … an image simply titled India, from 2014.
Harsh flash … an image simply titled India, from 2014. Photograph: Sohrab Hura/Magnum Photos

The idiot photographer mocked by his character, Madhu – “Why on Earth would anybody waste time on something like this?” – is, of course Hura himself, but also, he tells me, the voyeuristic viewer. “In a way, I was tapping into the discomfort I was feeling both as a photographer wandering the streets at night, but also as someone immersed in the image language of social media – what is right, what is wrong, what is true, what is fake? We are all complicit in that blurring of boundaries, even if we are just looking.”

In its iconoclastic way, Hura’s book also reflects the volatility of contemporary Indian society, the uneasy dynamic between the new entrepreneurial class who are driving the country’s rapidly growing economy, and a more traditional culture in which rigid ideas of faith, caste and political allegiance still hold sway and are increasingly given violent expression. Of late, he says, he has been attuned to “an increasing dissonance” in Indian politics and public debate.

“There is a kind of new, aggressive nationalism that expresses itself in rioting, often engineered rioting,” he says. “As soon as Narendra Modi [India’s current prime minister] took power, something shifted. There is a TV channel just for Modi and his message, there are comic books about him. The government is building a new narrative that is a kind of Indian populism. Everywhere there is doubt and a need to believe. I think it is reaching a kind of critical point now.”

Since we spoke, that ethnic tension has escalated considerably with Modi’s Hindu-led nationalist government controversially revoking Kashmir’s special status, instigating a widespread security clampdown involving thousands of troops. A security order has been issued banning public meetings, rallies and movement, while access to the internet, the main means for activists to organise protests, has been cut off across the disputed Himalayan region where seven million people live. While Modi’s hardline supporters see the move as the righting of a historical wrong, Masood Khan, president of the Pakistan-controlled portion of Kashmir, has said it could lead to a war with Pakistan.

Passion … Anjali and Nisha, 2015.
Passion … Anjali and Nisha, 2015. Photograph: Sohrab Hura/Magnum Photos

Hura belongs to an emerging generation of young Indian photographers questioning the role of the image-maker in this shifting political and social culture. Given the times, has he received flak from critics for misrepresenting, or sensationalising, aspects of Indian life, its religious and cultural traditions? “Not really. Some people are shocked by the images, some taken aback in a good way. What I do is not documentary, more a kind of multi-layered storytelling that has its own almost allegorical truth embedded in it. I think most people get that.”

Hura was born in a small town in West Bengal and now lives in New Delhi. He has a degree in economics and describes his upbringing as “privileged – like most Indian photographers”. Now an associate member of the renowned Magnum photographic agency, he has also taught workshops at Photo Katmandu in Nepal. He is self-taught having learned the basics, when he accompanied “ a proper photographer to shoot mountains and sunrises. They were nothing special, but it was the first time in a long time I felt good about myself.”

Two of his earlier series, Life Is Elsewhere and Look It’s Getting Sunny Outside!!!, deal with his mother’s schizophrenia. The latter series, in particular, hints at the visceral thrust of The Coast, but is grounded by a more intimate, tenderly observed approach. “When my mother became ill,” he says, “it seemed like the end of my world.”

Ritual … couples plunge into the sea in Tamil Nadu.
Ritual … couples plunge into the sea in Tamil Nadu. Photograph: Sohrab Hura/Magnum Photos

The Coast marks a distinct shift in approach and attitude insofar as it utterly disregards the conventions of traditional documentary photography. Often, intentionally, it is hard to read what exactly is going on in a single photograph, the uncertainty amplified by Hura’s repeated use of the same image, but in often jarring juxtapositions. As the visual narrative moves outward from a makeshift bedroom into the uncertain world beyond, we witness religious rituals that involve demonic masquerade and blood-letting as well as glimpses of the destitute, the physically deformed and the mentally anguished. The book culminates with a series of calmer images of people, often fully clothed, plunging into the ocean as if surrendering to its elemental power.

“I shot many of those images in a village by the sea in Tamil Nadu during a religious festivity which was quite wild and aggressive. Many people seemed to have entered into a state of trance. They were masquerading as gods, as doctors, patients, the poor and the crazy. There were people wrapped in bandages with blood dripping from them. I saw others who had entered a state of frenzied violence, plunging themselves into the waves to wash away their masks, banish their demons. It was a ritual cleansing, a letting go – of fear, aggression, anxiety.”

For all that, The Coast is restrained compared to the work that prefigured it: The Lost Head & the Bird, a disorienting projection that unfolds at disorienting speed against a loud, industrial soundtrack. I first experienced it in a darkened room in Peckham in 2017, describing it then as “an almost subliminal flow of often violent images that is like a jolt to the senses compared to the prints-on-the-wall traditionalism of most exhibitions”. Hura tells me that there are now 12 different versions of the projection that play on a loop, describing the extended remix as “a vessel of infinity and randomness, history and absurdism wherein there is no one fixed truth”.

Warning: flashing images … a trailer for The Lost Head & the Bird

The book is more considered but equally experimental – it concludes with 11 versions of the aforementioned short story, each one differing from the others in just a few carefully altered words. “In India, perhaps more so than anywhere else, fiction, stories, myths live longer than factual stories.” Hura elaborates: “They are allegories that people return to, constants in the ongoing turbulence of politics, religion and caste. For me, the notion of photography as fiction is a given.”

In his self-created persona – “the idiot photographer” – he creates images and narratives that are ambiguous, unreliable and open-ended, reflecting the anxious instability of our times. “My images are not dogmatic, they always carry an element of doubt,” he says. “I am trying to find my own place in this complicated shifting ecosystem of representation that is so huge now that it is hard to know what the parameters are. Within that, the only person I can take responsibility for is myself. Not Indians, not men. Just me.”


Sean O’Hagan

The GuardianTramp

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